Specifically, our bargaining chip against Beijing is to make things uncomfortably apocalyptic. The point is less what the carrier can do and more what an attack on it promises—full retaliation, and a war that may quickly get out of hand. As ASPI analyst Harry White observed last month, “the idea is that anyone who attacks as valuable an asset as a US carrier should expect a significant response.” Internationally, a successful strike would deeply wound American prestige, especially if it went unanswered. Domestically, the deaths of six thousand crewmembers would generate almost unbearable political pressures for revenge. Our entries into WWII and the Global War on Terror were sparked by less. In fact, there are already hints of such a strategy more broadly. In a January Foreign Policy article, Elbridge Colby and Ely Ratner advise “communicating that Beijing has less ability to control escalation than it seems to think” and “pursu[ing] policies that actually elevate the risks.” They hope to avert both war and aggression by intensifying their consequences.
Defense planners prefer not adopting force postures based on creating risk, but there are few alternatives if America’s goal is to maintain supremacy in China’s immediate periphery. Existing war plans require carriers to project air power onto the Asian mainland; mothballing them would deprive the US of the bulk of its striking power. Fixed airbases are in even greater danger, partly because facilities in South Korea, Japan, and Guam have not been hardened in years. A few months ago, Andrew Erickson concluded that America retains an important advantage in anti-submarine warfare. But the study he cites raises questions about whether a technological lead will suffice against a worsening numerical handicap off China’s coast.
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